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When to Spy on Our Friends

The NSA in Europe.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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But the Snowden-produced brouhaha appears to be much less about Washington’s ability to snatch official secrets than its capacity to monitor the personal conversations of Europeans, especially Europe’s leaders. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s mercurial temperament and eventful private life, and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s reckless hunger for young women, probably were tempting targets for NSA technicians and senior American officials. The former’s boldness dragged Barack Obama into the Libyan war; the latter’s lust may have played out in the company of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is capable of blackmailing and even assassinating his enemies at home and abroad. 

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder certainly wouldn’t have wanted American officials to listen to his private conversations (by 1997, he was on his fourth wife); nor would he have wanted Washington to hear his strenuous efforts to back-stab the Americans in the run-up to the Iraq war or his close association with Putin and Russian business interests. The same might be said for former French president Jacques Chirac, who reportedly had many affairs and arduously worked to save Saddam Hussein from the Anglo-American invasion in 2003. A British or Canadian prime minister might engage in scandalous behavior that could have severe national-security repercussions for the United States. But with the British and the Canadians, Americans enjoy vastly greater openness, from top to bottom of their political systems and their diplomatic, intelligence, and security establishments (American, Canadian, and British diplomats sometimes sit down at the same desk and write each other’s classified cables). And aggressive media are there to check the refractory behavior of wayward leaders. More or less, the United States can trust the national reflexes of its closest allies. That is just not true of France and Germany. 

Some European states now and then have run operations against American citizens, especially American businessmen. The French, owing to their commercial étatisme, were once particularly naughty in this regard. (Note to the Europeans: The CIA and the NSA do not do industrial espionage. Most big European businesses have lots of American employees and stockholders. American government lawyers would go on the warpath against any intelligence operative dumb enough to suggest that an Airbus “secret” be given to Boeing.) 

But European means, if not European will, are wanting beyond traditional espionage. It costs a lot of money to run the NSA. Dollar for dollar, it’s been a much better investment for America’s national security than spending money on the CIA’s clandestine service. The Europeans traded away their intercept capacity long ago, during the Cold War, when they downsized their militaries in favor of welfare states and allowed the United States to carry the primary defense burden for the West. In part, what we are witnessing in this current uproar is another attempt by weak Europeans to gain leverage over stronger Americans by expressing their moral displeasure. Americans, who love company, are always subject to moral suasion from our friends. Understandably, Europeans don’t like being dependent upon the United States even though they have freely chosen to be so. Understandably, they want to have a veto over American actions, which always have repercussions far beyond the United States. Americans, especially Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, rightly care a lot about transatlantic harmony—a point not lost on Europeans. The French and the Germans, who are undoubtedly America’s friends on most issues, want to have the same status in our eyes as our Anglophone cousins. Their expression of shock at the NSA’s capabilities is a sincere compliment: They would expect the Russians to bug them up the wazoo if Moscow had the means to do so. 

Giving the French and the Germans equal standing with the British isn’t, in theory, a bad idea. The ultimate objective of American foreign policy, even under Barack Obama, our first post-Western president (to borrow from the New York Times’s Roger Cohen), always ought to be to strengthen the West. Europe is family and an indispensable line of defense. Yet neither the president nor Congress can possibly promise Paris and Berlin that Washington will permanently turn off the NSA’s ears. Another Gerhard Schröder could rise to power in Berlin; another Middle Eastern war could divide alliances and nations. And as long as Islamic holy warriors or sanctions-busting Iranian operatives or Putin-backed Russian thugs and criminals are operating in Europe, the NSA is going to be monitoring lots of communications, with or without the permission of the locals. 

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